The Brazen Serpent

The desert period of Israel’s national existence has ended. The command has been given that the journey to the promised land be resumed. Beginning at mount Hor, the way led by the Red Sea, and encompassed the land of Edom. The journey was difficult and the people became impatient and disgusted because of the way. They rebelled against the guidance of God and the leading of Moses. They said, “Wherefore have ye brought us up out, of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this despicable bread,” they said, meaning the manna. Undoubtedly they were weary to the point of exhaustion and famished. So, in their unbelief, in their willing ignorance of all that God had been and done for them in the past, they concluded that they would now have to perish in the way. The presence of the manna in their midst meant nothing to them. It was a despicable bread, so they said, unfit for human consumption. And they heartily loathed it. Their unbelief grew out of the same delusion which the previous generation had expressed; and the sin, which they at this juncture committed, was just as great.

The ground of the terrain, through which their way now crossed, was full of holes, the home of serpents. And the judicial providence of God used the obnoxious product of the land for punishment, converting the serpents of the desert into a divine punitive visitation. The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people—fiery, literally, burning serpents; so called from the inflammatory nature of their bite, which infused a deadly, burning poison, and also perhaps from their fiery red color. Much people died, for the swarm of serpents was extraordinary large. The terror of the people, increased by their conscience awakened to a sense of guilt, was great. They confessed that they had sinned against Jehovah their God, and against Moses and besought him to intercede in their behalf. The remedy was adapted to the situation. Moses was commanded to make him a fiery serpent—an image of one—and to set it upon a pole or standard and it should come to pass that everyone that was bitten, when he looked upon it, should live. Such was the promise to which fully corresponded the miraculous results.

This event rises into great importance through the application which Christ Himself makes of it to His own life. “”And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life”. John 3:14.

It is the brazen serpent that forms the subject of this essay. Let us consider this object (1) as to its direct bearing on the people of Israel and (2) as to its typical reference to Christ.

The brazen serpent signified certain vital truths which the church of that day had need of hearing in order to participate in the salvation of God. To know what these truths are, attention must be directed first to the living reptiles by which the rebellious Israelites were bitten. What did these creatures signify? Some hold that they have to do with the serpent in Eden or with the devil, the old serpent. According to others, they signify in the first place the devil, then sin, then further inherited, original sin. Still others make them the symbol of judgment, punishment, curse and evil, as borne not by fallen man but by Christ, and hold that in this view the mystery, in its great features, soon comes to light. The view of evil in the confidence that it is Jehovah’s remedy against sin, this, it is said, is the main thing.

Now the divers views, presented above, divide into two sorts. In the one class, the living serpents signify sin in the sense of moral corruption; in the other, they appear as the symbol of the punishment of sin as Christ bore it in His flesh.

It is plain that both these views cannot be correct. The trouble with interpreters in general is that they fail to differentiate between the living vipers and the brazen serpent made after the similitude of these vile creatures. The brazen serpent was a type of Christ but not those vipers.

Just what did the latter signify? It is certain that, among God’s irrational creatures, the living (not the brazen) serpent, thus also the vipers of the wilderness, is preeminently the symbol of sin, of all that is sinful, corrupt, vile, thus of doom, the curse, the ban of God. It was to the serpent that God said, “thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field.’’

This makes the serpent the symbol firstly of the devil, the murderer of mankind, the liar from the beginning, the originator of the lie with which he instigated our first parents to disobey God’s command. This was the first bite of the serpent.

If the serpent signifies the devil, it also signifies his brood, the natural man, dead in sin. This is plain from the language that the Scripture uses in speaking of this man. At Ps. 140:1-3 it is said of the violent and evil man that he sharpens his tongue like a serpent, and that adders’ poison is under his lips. In reproving the Pharisees, Christ calls them serpents, a generation of vipers. And so, too, the Baptist.

Properly, the serpent signifies the principle of sin as it riots in the essence of fallen man’s (and also the devil’s) being. The serpent lurks in man’s own bosom, corrupting his whole nature and producing in him all sorts of sin, becoming in him a root thereof. It is this conception of sin that we encounter in Romans 7, where the statement occurs, “But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law, sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died”. Sin as an active principle in man, working in him all manner of sin through the intervention of the law of God, without which it remains an unknown power—this is the working of the adder in man. So in the case of the Jews of the wilderness. The serpent that slumbered in their bosom, taking occasion by the will of God that they bear the hardships of the journey with patience and know that man lives by every outgoing of God’s mouth, revived. Reviving, it bit them, produced in them wanton rebellion.

The serpent, in fine, signifies sin, curse, doom, the ban of God.

As to the serpent of brass it was not by itself a serpent but was made one. “Make thee,” said the Lord to Moses,” a fiery serpent”. It was thus made after the exact similitude (make thee a fiery serpent) of the living reptiles of the wilderness, thus made sin, a curse (symbolically), so made, in other words, as to show forth the cursedness of the vipers without being seen as armed with their poison. For, being what it was, a thing of pure metal, it was, from the nature of matters, devoid of this poison.

Being made a curse, this harmless, poisonless lifeless thing was set upon a pole or tree. This bespoke its ban—the ban of God—branded it a curse, and exposed it to view a sin offering. These certainly were the reasons of its elevation. It is not correct to say that the sole purpose of the lifting up of the brazen serpent was to render its conspicuous. Were this true, there would be no point to this doing. The confession that God demands of the sinner is that he is saved through faith in one—Christ Jesus—who was made sin. A man may look upon the Savior ever so steadfastly, believe in Him ever so firmly, but if he refuses to see in Him one who bore for His people the burden of divine wrath against sin, he perishes in his sin.

Thus what the bitten Israelites were commanded to behold was a gracious provision of God, made like unto the reptiles by which they had been bitten, but free from their poison, thus an object altogether harmless, taken in their stead and made for them a sin and a curse. So it appears that the brazen serpent is indeed a symbol of the punishment of sin.

Looking upon this object, the wounded Israelites were cured. Thus the poisonous bite of the serpent in the wilderness was healed through the beholding of a harmless brazen serpent made sin and as such exposed to view.

But the brazen serpent was after all but a lifeless thing. How could the beholding of it be rewarded by the cure of a serpent’s deadly bite? The brazen serpent was by itself nothing at all. Yet it was the power of God unto the cure of the serpent’s bite. The reasons are two. The brazen serpent revealed the righteousness of God. It declared, together with the sacrifices by blood, that Zion was to be redeemed with judgment and her converts with righteousness. It proclaimed the virtues of God, now seen in the face of Christ. Because it did so, God affixed to it the promise of His healing and His will, determination, to heal all such who by His mercy received the brazen serpent as the God-appointed remedy for their physical wounds. Upon that object, the Lord imposed, to say, His almighty, healing blessing word. Hence, to look upon this object was at once to look up to God. Their beholding it was thus the exercise of faith in the willingness and power of God to heal their wounds.

And all they were asked to do is to behold the brazen serpent. Through the bringing of the sacrifice by blood the ancient worshipper also gave expression to his faith in the willingness of the Lord to pardon transgression and to redeem the life of His people from destruction. Here, however, faith was expressed through a symbolical transaction consisting in the sacrifice of an animal partly through the agency of the priest. Here we meet with action that could be construed, and so the carnal Jews did construe it, as forming a kind of meritorial basis for God’s benefits. But it could not very well be maintained that the dying Israelites merited with God simply through looking upon His provision for the healing of their diseases. The requirement that they do nothing at all but look upon this object, the cure, the instant recovery, that accompanied such beholding, was well calculated to drive home the fact and truth that salvation is solely by grace through faith and not of works.

The brazen serpent, it is plain, was a most remarkable symbol. It so forcibly and clearly declared that the remedy of sin is sin’s curse as born by God’s appointed innocent substitute, and that salvation is solely through faith in this remedy.

The brazen serpent was not God’s true remedy of sin. It was given for the healing merely of a physical wound, inflicted by the poisonous bite of a natural, creatural reptile. The power of God associated with it was for the healing of the body and not of the soul. It was thus truly a visible sign and a seal, appointed of God to declare and seal to the true children of the covenant the promise of the gospel. As such it was, in the final instance, a type of Christ, and this according to Christ’s own word, “As Moses lifted up the serpent so must the Son of man be lifted up.” ‘What was done with the serpent, on the low plane of the typical-symbolical, must be done with me on the high plane of the heavenly realities’. Such certainly is the thrust of this utterance of Christ. He does not, by this word, place the lifting up of the serpent on a level with His own. He takes this event in the desert for what it is—a doing of His heavenly Father, prefiguring His, the Christ’s, atonement.

Being what it is, a prophetic type, the brazen serpent conveys definite points of instruction about Christ, namely, the following:

(b) The brazen serpent was made like unto the poisonous vipers of the wilderness in one thing only, to wit, in outward appearance, it was thus made sin but merely in this respect that, due to this resemblance, it reflected, as a thing inanimate, the cursedness of the vile creatures which it imaged without its lifeless structure housing their poison.

The living Christ was made like unto His fallen brethren in all things. He owned their guilt assumed their nature, bore in His sinless flesh their griefs, carried their sorrows, and was wounded for their transgressions. So, in this respect, was He made sin and did He exhibit in His flesh the curse and punishment due to sin.

(b) The brazen serpent was lifted up. Christ was hanged on the ignominious cross—so the justice of God demanded—and thus exposed to view as the true sin-offering. From His cross He was lifted up into the highest heavens and is set before all creatures as the only and true remedy of sin through the preaching of the gospel. For, God so loved the world.

(c) Whosoever looked upon the brazen serpent was healed of a physical wound. Whosoever looks upon Christ is truly and permanently healed of all his diseases and has life everlasting. For He is the only remedy for all the spiritual wounds inflicted by the serpent’s bite. Anointed with the oil of gladness, He is -the true balm in Gilead.